August 19, 2012

Destination Vietnam

It was my third visit to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), but this time I was on a completely new mission – not entirely just a holiday. I was looking for that elusive sweet berry-like coffee that I had tasted in Hanoi a year earlier.

 Stepping back a year, I was in Hanoi assisting with barista training for the charity organisation KOTO with Justin Metcalf from Box Hill Training Institute, when we stumbled on a small roaster and tasted the most esquite coffee, which coated our palates with rich, plum fruit and berries. The coffee was amazing and apparently came from the Caldat region of Southern Vietnam near Dalat. I needed more!Now it was our quest to find this high grade Arabica coffee, which was grown in high altitudes in the mountains near Dalat city, seven hours’ drive from Ho Chi Minh. I had fellow adventurers with me again – Justin Metcalf, World Barista Judge, Steve McGuinness from Beans and Bagels in Melbourne, and our dedicated film maker, Jay Beaumont. We were planning to film our adventure for the new Foxtel program, World of Coffee. A good friend, Virginia Holloway, who owns a café in Hanoi called “Commune” and works with disadvantaged street kids had joined us and organised the coffee tour – which was quite a complex task in this sometimes complicated country. The bureaucracy sometimes overshadows common sense, but as Virginia pointed out, in Vietnam it will always happen if you’re patient.

Ho Chi Minh City had not changed since our last visit – still a crazy landscape of noisy motorbikes buzzing in all directions 24 hours a day. This lively city never sleeps. I love the endless food smells that drift on the air around the multitude of street vendors, who busily prepare their fresh, flavorsome cuisine for the bustling foot traffic that devour this tasty street food.

Vietnam is still how I remember Asia when I travelled as a backpacker twenty years ago, and the noise and street smells brought back some fond memories.

We had a few days before our coffee tour started so being a food lover, I enrolled Jay and myself into a traditional cooking school, hopefully to learn the skilled art of Vietnamese cooking and get some good brownie points from our wives on our return. The cooking school started at the famous Ben Thahn Markets in District One of the old Saigon city. We had the pleasure of hand picking through the large selection of fresh herbs and farmed produce for our prospective dishes. The market not only sold fresh food, but all types of handcrafts, including vendors selling the famous Vietnam Weasel coffee, a direct take on Indonesia Civet coffee, or Kopi Luwak. I believe it’s a similar animal, and the same process of coffee production of feeding this little furry creature coffee cherries and sorting through its dung heaps for processed beans applies. You know the old saying: “Looks like crap, must taste like crap”.

Our cooking school was a culinary success, and we moved on to check out the new emerging café scene in Saigon. The city boasts a new breed of young entrepreneurial café owners, who have taken to the café scene with a real vengeance. This group of young Saigonese punters have some pretty unique café concepts on show in this fast growing city.

We all fell in love with the concept call “Lusine”, which was a French inspired café setting of long communal tables decorated with amazing Indochine antiques. The coffee and food was great, and the place was filled with people from all over the world, just like any fast moving Australian café. Another unique café was ID Café, which was full of great ideas. The business had great traditional Vietnamese tasting plates combined in a European café style of service .

After a few days of eating too much and drinking cheap but refreshing 333 beer, we hopped on a plane to Dalat in central Vietnam. It was a short one hour flight, and we were met by our driver and guide arranged by Oribery Coffee, a not for profit group looking after the growth and welfare of Vietnamese coffee farmers.

The guide informed us it was a one hour drive to the Caldat region of Vietnam, 20 km from Dalat city. During the first part of the day, we met a farmer named Mr Ngu Nguyen, who had 5 hectares of Arabica coffee trees growing on terrace hills around his home.

The 67 year old man was still working his property, which produces around 40 tonnes per annum. He lives with his extended family in a small timber cottage built into the hillside. The farm averages about 600 trees per hectare. His children also farm coffee in the area, and their combined total of two hundred tonnes are sold into the Oriberry system annually.

The property has other crops, like bananas, flowers, avocados and persimmon trees, which act as shade trees, assisting the growth of coffee in the early juvenile stages after planting. Mr Ngu supplies his dried coffee in parchment to the Oriberry Foundation, that works to find the best prices and helps him market his family coffee. Like many other developing country coffee farmers, they get the price at the farm gate if they sell to processing mills and cooperatives. The Oriberry foundation buys the coffee and becomes a marketing arm, getting a better deal through their international contacts.

Vietnam grows the second biggest crop of coffee for the world market after Brazil – mostly Robusta. What we discovered was that many farmers are switching to the more profitable Arabica variety, and we saw signs of foreign investment moving in. This is good news for Australian coffee roasters, with a close neighbouring country like Vietnam being able to supply better quality beans to our growing industry.

We had a quick look around Dalat, completed our filming mission and jumped back on a plane for Ho Chi Minh. We could not leave Vietnam without a visit to the new KOTO restaurant in the city. This is KOTO’s first restaurant in Ho Chi Minh, and it’s a sleekly designed manor house that’s the training ground for street kids, who have been transformed into hospitality professionals. KOTO has a restaurant and training college in Hanoi and is looking now at other regions of Vietnam to start up this world renown charitable foundation.

Again, we have seen the benefits of this organisation and can see the good they have created in their endeavours to help the misplaced teens of Vietnam.

I am sure I will be back to Vietnam in the near future and can’t wait to see Jay’s visual creativity on the World of Coffee show with Justin and Steve’s acting skills – and not forgetting some more exciting stories in Café Culture Magazine.

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